#393. Rural Newcomers: Young, educated, there by choice

Posted on | The Agurban
Rural Newcomers: Young, educated, there by choice
Pam Lehman, Executive Director of the Lac qui Parke County Economic Development Authority, sent the following article to us because it featured a local family. We love the idea of young people finding “their place” in going back to, or forward, to a small town, and small town living. Here is the article authored by Pam Louwagie, in part, that appeared in the Star Tribune in June 2012.

MARIETTA, MINN. – As soon as his big-city banking employer allowed him to work remotely, Andrew Lewis fled his traffic-jammed, necktie world to seek serenity. Now, when he turns away from the three computer screens on his desk, he can wander out the door of his old farmhouse and gaze at the rippling green carpet of crops that stretches beyond his 10-mile view. Corn, soybeans and sky.

Lewis is part of a small but steady contingent of educated transplants, often in their 30s and 40s, who are choosing to settle in the countryside. Seeking simpler lives, they are tipping the scales back a bit from the often-cited “brain drain” of rural high school graduates who leave for work or college in bigger cities.

In Minnesota, the phenomenon is most pronounced in the central lakes region, with its lure of water and woods. There, in the last census decade, counties such as Hubbard, Mille Lacs and Carlton gained residents ages 30 to 44 at rates above 25 percent.

But even in southwestern Minnesota, which continues to shed population overall, many counties have gained residents in that age group.Lac qui Parle County, where Lewis lives with his wife and 7-year-old twin boys, epitomizes small-town America. It has a little more than 7,000 people, and the county’s single stoplight glows at a rural intersection.

Between 2000 and 2010, the 30 to 44 age group grew 15.1 percent, among the highest in the southwest part of the state.

Local government and civic leaders have worked hard to try to attract and keep newcomers like the Lewises.Trench diggers cleave the countryside, laying 647 miles of fiber-optic cable as part of a $9.7 million project to bring free high-speed Internet infrastructure to all houses and businesses in the county.

The town of Dawson offers commercial real estate to job-creating business owners for as little as $1.In Madison, Minn., last week, hundreds gathered under the marquee of the Grand Theatre to raise some of the nearly $100,000 needed to buy digital movie equipment so the venue can stay open when film becomes obsolete.

Business leaders recruit hard, too. When Madison clinic administrators interviewed 27-year-old Maribeth Olson for a physician assistant job last year, they took her and her husband on a tour of local real estate, businesses and the elementary school. They hosted a social gathering at the local VFW club. The couple packed their belongings and moved from suburban Pittsburgh in December.

Like the Olson’s, many newcomers grew up in rural areas, but the majority is not returning home, moving instead to different small communities.The migration enriches rural communities, Winchester and others say, because newcomers bring ideas and skills to civic, school and church clubs.A survey in west-central Minnesota showed that 60 percent of newcomers took leadership roles in the community, and 81 percent donated to local causes. Most had some higher education, too, with 68 percent holding bachelor’s degrees or above, and 19 percent holding associate degrees.

Stayed tuned…next week we will share with our readers an innovative idea taking place in Lac qui Parle County to get broadband to all corners of the county.